Cracking the Bullwhip

Cracking the Bullwhip

It was Feb. 15th 1972 and I had just arrived in Senegal after a crazy, wild ride across the western Sahara Desert on the back of a series of very cheap, very crowded, very hot, unreliable and unscheduled local trucks. You might get a ride the next day. Or maybe the next week. Or maybe never, or so it seemed.

The only casualties on the journey were three goats that I helped eat after they were butchered and cooked on a fire by one of my truck drivers, plus a Frenchman who badly broke his leg jumping off the back of the truck he was riding on because the cargo was on fire in the middle of the desert at night thanks to his careless smoking, and all the endless flies I killed while waiting way too long for a truck in Mauritania.

My only desire now was to get to Dakar, the capital city of Senegal, and one of Africa’s leading cultural centres. I wanted to observe and experience life in a major, sub-Saharan African city.

It took me only one ride to cover the 100 kms from the Mauritanian border south to the city of Saint-Louis. From there I spoiled myself by taking a 260-kilometre train ride south to Dakar, beside the beautiful Atlantic Ocean.

The first thing that struck me in Senegal, and especially in Dakar, was the spectacularly colourful and beautiful clothes worn by the Senegalese people. The words for these clothes in Wolof, the main tribe and local language, is ‘boubou,’ for men, and ‘m’boubou’ for women. The male version is a sleeveless robe worn over top of a long-sleeved gown, or trousers. The female outfit is a flowing dress that reaches to just above the ankles, worn over a wrapped skirt. The quality of the material and the dye used to produce the sparkling colours varied as did the price.

These clothes are still worn in Dakar, and with variations across West Africa, especially on big market days, but not as commonly as they were in 1972. Almost everyone was dressed up in those gorgeous traditional clothes back then and they looked particularly sharp on the women. I did see some people wearing western clothes, mostly men in suits, but even a colour- blind person like me was enchanted by the colourful garb. The only other word in Wolof I learned was spelled “Wau,” but pronounced ‘Wow!’, which means ‘Yes!’ in Wolof. On a few occasions I heard locals talking away in Wolof, nodding their heads and repeating ‘Wow, Wow, Wow.’

Dakar had a lot to offer the budget traveller. The medina featured narrow streets, laid out in grids and packed with people. There was plenty of delicious and cheap street food available from local vendors, such as grilled fish, mutton and the national dish, Thieboudienne – fish with rice and vegetables simmered in tomato sauce. Customers could watch cows being killed and butchered in the market, an awful sight I totally avoided. I preferred watching the young boys playing pickup football (soccer) in the streets. There was a great deal of poverty in Dakar, but there was also an unmistakably jubilant spirit and atmosphere. I was very happy to be there.

Dakar was a very safe city and I quickly learned from locals that I could put up my excellent two-man tent on the beach without worrying that someone would steal it, or my sleeping bag and my clothes.

After a few days I met a young American who asked if he could share my tent because he couldn’t afford to stay in a cheap hotel. I didn’t really want to share my tent with him but he was a fellow backpacker in need, so I reluctantly said yes. He moved his things into my tent and we got along well enough.

One night I came back to the beach with my flashlight and couldn’t seem to find the tent. That’s when I heard his voice. He was apologetic. It seems he was reading a book in my tent by candlelight, knocked the candle over, burned down the tent and most of everything I owned except my sleeping bag. I was shocked. I didn’t say so, but you have to be pretty stupid to read by candlelight in a tent. He offered to pay for the damage, but insisted he was running out of money. He finally offered me $60 US dollars, which was pathetic when you consider the tent alone was worth wore than twice that much. I swallowed hard but settled for his offer and used it to buy some new clothes, but not boubou. I still had my traveller’s cheques but replacing everything was just too expensive.

The highlight of my time in Senegal was the state visit of Omar Bongo, who served as the President of Gabon for 42 years. I had heard Bongo was coming the day before, but was astounded to witness the spectacle that followed. Senegalese President Leopold Senghor commandeered all the buses his government could find, sent them out into the bush country and filled them with villagers, who were bused into Dakar to create massive cheering crowds for his long motorcade with Bongo, from the airport to the Presidential palace.

Omar Bongo, President of Gabon for 42 years, from 1967 until his death in 2009
Léopold Senghor, first President of Senegal from 1960 – 1980

I watched transfixed as thousands of rural peasants came rolling off those buses and began a massive street party in the capital city. They were having a lot of fun. I thought it was fantastic, but the Senegalese soldiers monitoring the streets were not pleased. Men were playing bongo drums while the women danced wildly and joyously in the streets. I was loving the show. The soldiers demanded order, however, and to my disbelief, began snapping bullwhips at the villagers to try to get them off the streets and lined up ‘properly’ on the sidewalks, so the motorcade could pass through smoothly when it arrived.

The villagers kept up the frenzied dancing and there simply wasn’t nearly enough soldiers to control the crowd and stop them. Apart from the bullwhips I thought it was wonderful.

Finally, more soldiers came, a few people were stung by the whips, and those groovy villagers retreated to the sidewalks. A few minutes later the luxurious car carrying Senghor and Bongo passed by at a fairly high speed, under signs welcoming the President of Gabon, and motored on to the palace as the crowds clapped and cheered loudly.

I told that story of the parade, with the soldiers and the bullwhips, many times to my friends, and one day a few years ago I got a big surprise. I was watching the excellent 1973 Senegalese film, Touki Bouki, directed by Djibril Diop Mombety, one of Africa’s best film directors, when I noticed something familiar. Touki Bouki, which can be found in Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, Volume 1, and occasionally on TCM (Turner Classic Movies), was clearly influenced by the French New Wave cinema, and featured numerous fantasy sequences depicting Mory, a cowherd, and Anta, a female university student, both of whom desired to escape from the poverty of Senegal to the wealth and sophistication of Paris.

The film portrayed a massive parade through the streets of Dakar with shots of Mory and Anta riding in a car, waving to the cheering crowds. Mombety cleverly integrated the shots of his characters into the parade sequence as if they were part of it. Suddenly it dawned on me that this was surely the same crazy parade I watched back in 1972, 38 years ago!

I replayed the film carefully and froze it when I noticed a banner welcoming Bongo to Dakar! I could barely believe it. I went back to the first shot of the parade and advanced it frame by frame, scanning the crowd for shots of myself, but I was apparently not captured in the footage, nor were the soldiers cracking the whips at the dancing peasant women. It was still a thrill to see the parade and an 89-minute film depicting a very familiar Dakar at the precise time I was there for a visit. It brought back many happy memories, apart from the bozo who burned down my tent.

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